In the lead-up to Pride Month, reporters on LGBTQ beats have been tasked with covering an unprecedented year in news, politics and culture.
On Friday, the Supreme Court dismantled Roe v. Wade, with Justice Clarence Thomas also calling on the court to revisit rulings that legalized same-sex marriage and consensual same-sex intimacy. This comes after, according to the Human Rights Campaign, more than 250 anti-LGBTQ bills having been introduced in 28 state legislatures in this year alone; in eight states, 24 of these bills, which largely focus on transgender rights and teaching LGBTQ issues in schools, have already been signed into law. Accompanying this record legislation is an exponential rise in activity targeting LGBTQ people — like the recent threats that have shut down Pride events — with this year already on track to outpace 2021, according to the global nonprofit ACLED.
At the same time, queer people are more visible in mainstream culture than ever before — from a record number of lesbian characters on scripted series to elite athletes competing in the Olympics.
Last year, Matt Lavietes joined NBC OUT from Reuters, where he was a general assignment reporter covering a spectrum of human rights issues for an international audience. Since joining NBC News’ LGBTQ-focused vertical, he’s been a go-to source of information about the wave of anti-LGBTQ legislation, as well as a regular contributor of pop culture news and features.
Lavietes spoke with NBCU Academy about what it’s like reporting on the rush of anti-LGBTQ bills, making the move from a newswire to an LGBTQ brand and the future of identity verticals. Our conversation has been lightly edited for brevity.
Just this past week, you covered a monumental moment in American politics — the Supreme Court’s decision to reverse Roe v. Wade and Justice Thomas’ interest in revisiting the legality of same-sex marriage. Based on your past reporting, what was your reaction to the news?
When Justice Thomas, in his concurring opinion, referenced the possibility of revisiting rulings that legalized same-sex marriage, contraception and sodomy, I wasn’t completely surprised, given that he has already publicly expressed the possibility of doing so, and then the intention to do so, within the last year.
As reporters, we’ve been speaking with activists and legal experts about the prospect of the court going there. If you follow what LGBTQ advocates have been saying — particularly advocates who have been fighting historic numbers of anti-trans legislation for the last three years — they have been sounding the alarm for a while, wanting all of the LGBTQ community to fight back against these policies.
The prospect of this monumental reversal of same-sex marriage, in particular, has jolted the community, just like the Roe decision has probably jolted a new wave of activism in women’s rights. Because it was such an old and historic decision, I think communities of all kinds are a little bit on edge right now.
I can’t imagine there are many Americans who didn’t hear about the Roe reversal and Justice Thomas’ opinion. But do you think people, particularly outside of the LGBTQ community, are tuned in to what’s going on in state and local legislatures?
Straight people have queer family members and friends and people in their circles, and are interested to know about their rights.
This year, the legislation around the so-called ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill, coming out of Florida, has generated a huge amount of attention. And I think the reason for that is because, after 2015, with the legalization of same-sex marriage, there was a sense of, “Okay, there’s nothing left for us to fight for. We’ve won equality, and we can sleep now.” And that’s obviously not the case, as shown by these bills and other failures, such as the Equality Act.
There’s obviously a huge debate over what the bill actually does. But, if you believe in what the activists are saying and you believe in what the queer people there are worried about, then that might generate a lot of outrage — as it did.
As a journalist covering LGBTQ issues, it can sometimes feel like these legislative bans and the violence against queer and trans people is nonstop. How do we accurately portray what’s going on around the country?
In the U.S., you have states like Texas and Florida, where LGBTQ people are arguably losing a lot of their rights, and then you have states like New York and elsewhere on the East and West coasts, where queer identities are being embraced more than ever. If the site reflects this dichotomy, then we’re doing a good job.
What does it mean to be on the front lines of that during this moment, which is historic not just because of the anti-LGBTQ bills but because of an explosion in queer visibility?
A lot of people assume that, because I’m a gay man, I inherently have a bias reporting on these heated “culture war” issues. And that bothers me because, as a reporter — as all reporters should do covering political topics — I surround myself with people from all walks of life. I talk with people from all political perspectives.
When I’m talking to both sides and they’re shouting at each other from opposite sides of the room, I try to bridge that gap any way that I can. I try to approach it from a place of understanding and empathy — and try to lower the temperature, especially when it’s so hot. I take that responsibility very seriously.
Working with such talented people at NBC — and coming from Reuters and working with talented people there — who are covering mass shootings, wildfires and wars, you learn to develop a thick skin. And you realize why that’s necessary.
I’ve received lots of hate mail calling me a pedophile, groomer and other things that I can’t say. But I would rather be here, in this moment, doing this reporting — and having to deal with a few pieces of hate mail — than not. Because, it’s important to me to be doing this work, and I think that our team does it well. And that’s much more important.
We’ve talked a lot about objectivity being the core of journalism. You’ve mentioned that when you were studying journalism during the Trump administration, you were affected by how hard it was to find reporting that cut through the noise to get to the facts.
As a student, I felt like why am I going into this if I’m not striving to be that reporter that I’m seeking myself? That was instilled in me pretty early on in my schooling experience, and I always aim for that now.
I would sometimes report on LGBTQ issues, and I would question myself. Like, “Am I too close to this to report on it fairly?”
And I think the answer is, yes, I can be a gay man and report on LGBTQ rights fairly, just as fairly as I would strive to report on any other issue. And because I’m closer to the issue, I can utilize that to my advantage — while maintaining that same core value of reporting objectively. I can find story ideas that maybe a straight reporter wouldn’t.
That’s probably been the best part of this job: to do the stories that we as queer people see that other people don’t.
I’m curious about your move from Reuters, which caters to an international audience, to a brand that does more U.S. reporting. Did you have any hesitation about that and about the decision to focus solely on LGBTQ issues?
Being able to focus on LGBTQ stories was what brought me to NBC, aside from being a reader for several years. And I have really enjoyed getting to tell local stories, to have that on-the-ground experience and to know what’s happening at a more granular level.
The LGBTQ beat is so much wider than most people know. And I think it’s important for national and international news organizations to have correspondents who are solely covering LGBTQ issues, because there are so many things that you don’t pick up on — as with any beat — if you’re not doing it every day.
The on-the-ground, granular reporting [like Florida teachers leaving the field in response to the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill] is great because people are really interested in reading stories that are super relatable, super local and have a small-town feel. People see themselves in those stories.
And, because I’m speaking with local communities, I can report the larger stories differently than someone who’s just jumping on to that big story and hasn’t been talking to the people on the ground.
One of the great things about identity verticals is that there are so many topics covered under the same umbrella. But assuming LGBTQ issues become more and more mainstream, will there continue to be a need for brands like OUT in the future?
Yes, I think that there will always be a need for identity verticals.
I’ll get emails from readers complaining, for example, that I shouldn’t be reporting that Mattea Roach from “Jeopardy!” is the first lesbian to have achieved a certain merit on the game show, because her accomplishments should just stand on their own. And I don’t agree with that. I think the reason that we report on those stories is because reporting on LGBTQ people and their accomplishments is still relatively new. And I think that there is merit in recognizing queer greatness in our reporting.
Based on some of the reporting that I’ve done recently, I’ve learned a lot about how storytellers are shifting away from stories about queer adolescents and coming out, and are telling more nuanced, fully lived stories of queer people. And I think that the same will go for the way that the media reports on LGBTQ people and issues.
There will always be a queer culture to report on. I think what will change is how we report. It will only get more and more nuanced, in a good way.